Monolith Soft’s 2010 Japanese-role-playing-game (JRPG) Xenoblade Chronicles has one heck of a story. The acclaimed Wii game’s hundreds of hours of gameplay are loaded with twists and turns, just as the story of its publication outside Japan is a whole tale in itself.
For me personally, Xenoblade Chronicles‘ journey to the west is a case study in many of the things wrong with the gaming industry, its fans, game review scores, and even our society today. As for the game itself, however, it remains a stellar example of how to do everything right within a JRPG.
A Clash of Cultures
The build-up to Xenoblade‘s release in western regions was riddled with drama, to say the least. As is commonly the case, the Japanese gaming market receives a range of software, often JRPGs, exclusively or far in advance of other regions where the games need time to be localized. For instance, now two years removed from its initial release, Dragon Quest X still remains Japanese-exclusive.
Xenoblade was a game stuck in this fringe between eastern and western cultures, teetering the line of Japanese-exclusivity and western release. Nintendo of Europe would end up being the first to make a move, releasing Xenoblade in PAL regions from August 2011.
Once the news circulated that North America was missing out, so began the fan outcry known as “Operation Rainfall.” The campaign also rallied for the localization of The Last Story and Pandora’s Tower, two JRPGs in the same situation as Xenoblade.
What started the Rainfall movement out on the wrong foot was that there was very little interest in Xenoblade, and its two companions, as games, before their PAL announcements. People got on the bandwagon not out of their desire for the games themselves, but merely over their damaged patriotic pride that they had been denied.
That the world had something North America didn’t spearheaded the petition more than a legitimate desire for the games. It was the classic cliché of the baby not wanting a toy until another child takes it.
I’m all for people’s right to make their voices heard, but if there were worthy intentions behind Operation Rainfall, they were shrouded in what was a shamefully immature fan outcry. Xenoblade, The Last Story, and Pandora’s Tower took a back seat as their merits were trivialized by a campaign of American gamer hubris.
Operation Rainfall did make a valid argument: it wouldn’t have been difficult to localize the game given Europe had already done the legwork. What their campaign overlooked was the nature of business, which Nintendo of America President Reggie Fils-Aimé was happy to emphasize:
“I wanted to bring Xenoblade here. The deal was, how much of a localization effort is it? How many units are we going to sell, are we going to make money? We were literally having this debate while Operation Rainfall was happening, and we were aware that there was interest for the game, but we had to make sure it was a strong financial proposition.
I’m paid to make sure that we’re driving the business forward, so we’re aware of what’s happening, but in the end we’ve got to do what’s best for the company. The thing we know is that a hundred thousand signatures doesn’t mean a hundred thousand sales.”
Sure, it may be a sad thing that the fun of Nintendo is part of a corporation out for profit, but that’s the capitalist culture we find ourselves in.
Compared to the smaller Nintendo of America, Nintendo of Europe has a much larger territory, both geographically and in population size. With such vastly varied demographics and languages, Europe found a large enough niche market to localize, whereas America struggled to find any market at all. That’s why Europe readily localized
Xenoblade and its two friends.
JRPGs have never been fast-sellers in western nations. Even with established franchises like
Final Fantasy, Monster Hunter, and Dragon Quest, while they move units outside Japan, their core fanbase remains within, where they dominate sales charts.
Germany, which is obviously a European country, is a nation with a strong fanbase of Japanese culture. In America there isn’t, however. Manga, anime and a game-genre specifically with the word ‘Japanese’ preceding it are not popular culture in North America; they’re alternative culture at most.
Disheartening as it may be, American culture favors
Halo and Call of Duty, not Ni no Kuni and Bravely Default. The results are obvious if you were to conduct a street survey on opinions and experiences with Call of Duty and Final Fantasy in America. Call of Duty would dominate.
It’s a sad reflection of western culture that
Grand Theft Auto tops the market while the masterpiece Xenoblade Chronicles struggles to even get published. In the end, thanks mostly to Nintendo of Europe having done the work, the game did make it stateside in 2012, but only in a limited-release that Nintendo of America could ensure would sell.
Xenoblade‘s journey to the west highlighted how the politics of business and finance permeates the gaming industry, which in turn brought out the worst in fans. It also demonstrated just how vast the divide between eastern and western gaming culture really is.
A Journalist’s Job
With a release ensured, the next stage to come was the reviewing process, and with
Xenoblade Chronicles that too was an insight into the inner workings of an industry.
For the most part, specialist-gaming publications awarded the game with critical acclaim as an exemplary example of the modern JRPG. There were others, however, who reviewed the game for broader audiences and warned that for those not familiar with the niche genre, the appeal of such an intense game would be limited.
I was among the later, smaller, group of reviewers, and it was a sustained argument.
Xenoblade isn’t for everyone! It’s the same conclusion Nintendo of America came to. As expected, following release the gamers I spoke to in person either had no knowledge of the game, had no interest, or found the opening hours too tedious and didn’t continue.
Where Xenoblade found its cult-following was in online niche gamer communities, not the general gaming population, further demonstrating our cultural divide.
Journalists have a tough job of knowing their audience and balancing knowing where a game’s appeal is. To recommend a game to those it won’t interest is career-suicide. One gamer’s masterpiece can be another’s nightmare.
What I experienced first-hand with
Xenoblade is that the stress and timeliness of producing consumer-demographic-based reviews is never conducive to being fully able to appreciate the game itself. Professional gaming for review has a habit of taking the fun out of the experience.
Xenoblade emphasized is the focus gamers give to scores over a review’s content. Reviewers who were hesitant to give Xenoblade a higher score due to its limited western appeal were abused in online comments, despite their reviews detailing how the game’s appeal will differ by gaming tastes.
When it came to the reviewing process,
Xenoblade made a statement that reviews are something that should be taken qualitatively, not quantitatively. Reviewers are writers, and their thoughts and experiences are in their prose, not the numeral.
Controversial in-and-outs of the industry aside, boot up
Xenoblade Chronicles and players were in for the JRPG-experience of a generation. Even the title screen boasted beauty with its simple sunrise and sunset to the piano title theme with an orchestral flurry. Xenoblade was a visual feat: a game that pushed the Wii to its limit.
Xenoblade encapsulates is the pinnacle of an original game concept and scenario design. The vast game world was set on the decaying corpses of two great titans, bounded by an endless ocean and sky.
One titan, Bionis, boasted flora and fauna, while Mechonis housed machines and mechanical races. The game’s scenario was matched perfectly by its soundtrack, pitting the natural orchestral score of the biological with the harsh metallic drums and guitars of the mechanical.
Add to this setting a uniquely complex and customizable real-time battle system. You could customize your gear, forge gems, strengthen your moves and build you party’s affinity in a previously unimagined system. Then weave in the intricate story and compelling cinematic cutscenes along with the plethora of quests, and you have the marvel that is Xenoblade Chronicles.
I regret never having a chance to give the themes of the game the type of expository analysis article they deserve.
Xenoblade subtly spins Shulk’s quest from an initial desire to fulfill a consuming personal revenge into a journey for universal justice and the peace of the cosmos.
Xenoblade was the tale of humanity taking control of their destinies from the hands of the gods, permeated throughout by the friendship of Shulk and Fiora: a love story of two meant for each other all along. Their bond is epitomized by the ending theme “Beyond the Sky.“
Those into the JRPG genre, who managed to wade through all the controversy and drama surrounding it, got themselves a treat, nay, a feast, in
Xenoblade Chronicles. It’s not for everyone, sure, but no other game has such a large-scale concept executed and implemented so precisely, let alone on the Wii. Its spiritual sequel, Xenoblade Chronicles X is scheduled for the Wii U in 2015, and we can only hope it does the original proud.